This book left me disturbed and affected me profoundly. Not only the storyline, the social context and the characters and the dilemmas they face but the brilliant writing and understanding of the human ( and feminine) psychology left a huge impact.
Firstly, it would require a great deal of courage to write such a book about the explicit sexual behaviour of a female during rather straitlaced times, where women were idealised into certain roles and any deviation from it was punished severely. Secondly, the characters have been so well etched and Flaubert has gone into their inner depths so well, one can literally be in their shoes, think their thoughts and feel what they feel.
The pacing of the story is superb. Initially very very slow, focussing on the lives and background of the main characters, Charles and Emma, building up the foundation for the subsequent happenings. At times, one wonders, why there is so much a need for such slow beginning, so much fine details but as the story proceeds and events pick up speed, one can see that it was a natural flow of the story and it really helps to understand and follow subsequent events.
The story revolves around two material traits of emma: Her need for material satisfaction and her need for sexual and emotional fulfillment. Both of these behaviors in excess and without control, lead ultimately to her self destruction and the destruction of her family.
From beginning to end, the underlying thread is of Emma’s self absorption and her fantasies and her idealistic desires and wishes, in contrary to reality.Reality never fulfills her expectations. This dissatisfaction gets aggravated from her marriage onwards, and during each of the subsequent encounters, through which she had hoped to fulfill her desires. Unfortunately, none of the relationships fulfill her expectations. while she is capable of emotional feeling, she is incapable of self reflection. This is what really makes it difficult for her to ever recover or rescue herself from the gradual and then rapid slide to death. In addition, her lack of faith in close relatives except her servant, leaves her isolated. She really has no friend or someone to advice her. She never realises this. She is totally in a world of her own. Her husband, becomes in her eyes, her worst enemy as in her eyes he is unworthy of her and he fails to win her respect in any way, inspite of his overwhelming faith and trust in her.
The real shocking change in her behaviour towards the end of the book, mentally, emotionally and psychologically is scary, shocking and moving. The desire for love and sexual fulfillment which was initially guileless and natural arising out of a romantic deportment later on, morphs her into a monstrous lusty creature. She degenerates completely. She is lost in a trap of her own making. She never really gets to realise the futility of these illusions, even when it is too late.
Many questions arise. About the fragility of human relationships and the transient nature of feelings and emotions, about human nature and its fallibility, about the selfishness and the fakeness of society. One is left with a feeling of horror, pity, sadness and a question in one’s mind ” If only…”
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